Wildlife in art

Wildlife in art

Wildlife painting is an integral part of the history of art. On our planet, wildlife animals have existed much longer than we humans, so it is not surprising that the depiction of wild animals has interested us from the beginning.

They say it’s better to live a year as a tiger than a hundred years as a sheep. Artists harness this energy and put it on display in every piece they proudly present to the world.

The relationship between humans and animals is as old as humanity itself and could not be more ambivalent. Reverence and loving care, existential dependence, fear and killing determine the relationship. A peaceful coexistence seems to be possible only through domestication.

Images of wildlife animals have existed since man’s ancestors began drawing on cave walls. Since the cave paintings of Lascaux we can trace the influence of wild life on art. Peering eyes and dazzling teeth have been discovered in numerous works, starting from the technical studies of Albrecht Dürer to the macabre works of Damien Hirst.


Albrecht Dürer – The Rhinos from 1515

Albrecht Dürer - The Rhinos from 1515
Albrecht Dürer – The Rhinos from 1515

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut is an artistic depiction of the rhinoceros, the wildlife animal that eerily fascinated the world of his time. The artist himself had never seen the rhinoceros, and the drawing is based on written descriptions and stories. The mechanical-looking likeness of the Indian rhinoceros is considered a scientific anatomical study. In the 18th century, Europeans finally had the opportunity to see the living animal. Dürer’s rhinoceros remained a beautiful example of the didactic role of art after the sighting of the rhinoceros, dating back to the first decades of the 20th century.

By Albrecht Dürer – National Gallery of Art., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43818350


Animals are attributed human qualities, dogs and cats are protagonists in wise fables, fairy tales and great literature, in movies and games. Beloved pets are pampered, while global species extinction continues, with devastating consequences for the entire globe.

More and more people are campaigning against mass farming and for species-appropriate husbandry, but price still rules in the supermarket. Exotic wild animals are coveted trophies and status symbols. But we often don’t know the names of the insects and birds in our own backyard.

The importance of wildlife painting over time

Charcoal paintings of horses, bison or reindeer, rhinos and lions were probably part of early ceremonial rituals. Some drawings symbolized fertility or a successful hunt, while other wildlife animal images were intended to reach ancient deities from the afterlife. This logic has been maintained in tribal art around the world. Since human survival was related to the hunt, tusk imagery was found in every primeval civilization.

The wild animal is a central pictorial motif in the history of art. No other subject seems better suited to fathom the self-image of what it means to be human. From drawing and painting to sculpture, photography, video and installation, the exhibition presents a broad spectrum of forms of representation.

Based on the museum’s own collection and supplemented by important loans, the wildlife art exhibition shows more than 120 representations of wild animals from the 20th and 21st centuries, which provide stimulating, surprising, and entertaining information about the multifaceted relationship between humans and wildlife animals.

Wildlife images in modern times

  • Since the 17th century, artists have depicted hunting scenes or domestic life in which human figures were accompanied by animals. Popular subjects were the struggle between man and wild animal, used as a metaphor for unruly forces or human instincts.
  • In the 18th century, the exploration of nature flourished and the fascination with the beauty of nature and the complexity of the wildlife world was reflected in art.
  • In the Victorian salons of the 19th century, animals were depicted as an inseparable part of the everyday life of the aristocracy.
  • Modern art of the 20th and 21st centuries combined all previous ways of representing the animal world in art – animals retained both symbolic and descriptive values, but were also treated as equally important figures. Many contemporary artists use strong references from art and ancient or primitive cultures in their complex studies of the animal body.
  • Today there is a particularly important trend within art that deals with wildlife and animal rights. The aim of this movement is to draw attention to the misery of animals through critical artistic illustration and to put an end to animal suffering.
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